Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:14 pm 
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A frigid blockbuster from a reformed sentimentalist

Steven Spielberg is a popular artist of genius, a wildly ambitious filmmaker with some amazing contributions to latter day celluloid folk mythology, but his results are more hit-or-miss than his millions of fans seem to recognize. Out of 44 directorial credits, roughly 13 might be worth remembering, and of those only a handful could qualify as imperishable popular art classics. When he scores, he scores big. Sometimes, though, the score is more box office than artistic. In between the 'Close Encounters' and the 'ETs' and 'Schindler's Lists,' there are some clinkers, and sometimes, as in 'Saving Private Ryan,' an unforgettable patch is weighed down by an uninteresting body, and at other times Spielberg's eagerness to please, his childlike sensibility, and his sentimentality can sink him. Spielberg's movies are behemoths technically, emotionally, and in their box office expectations. They arouse great expectations in the public, too, and they can be exhaustingly disappointing. 'A.I.' was that for most people (those who even went to see it). It's too long -it had about three equally elaborate endings -- but I was one of the few who loved it and found it magical and deeply touching and think in time it will be recognized as a classic, however flawed, and a worthy homage to Kubrick. 'Minority Report,' made after long delays while The Great One was editing 'A.I,' doesn't have the magic or the emotional power of its immediate predecessor, nor does it have the bite Spielberg thinks it has. If it was conceived as an antidote, it doesn't work that way, because there's nothing cynical, nothing ironic, about this movie.

'Minority Report' is cold and uninvolving and borrows from so many sources it has no personality of its own. As a sci-fi action film noir story starring Tom Cruise, it's big box office and ought to do way better than 'A.I.,' but it sadly does not stand out from the other summer blockbusters, some of which are definitely more fun. The first problem with 'Minority Report' from which all others flow is that this is another movie made from a story by Fifties sci-fi pulp great Philip K. Dick, a wrecked genius and a born cynic. Spielberg is an optimist and a sentimentalist, if a reformed one, who is trying to make a 'dirty' picture, something a lot rougher and nastier than 'The Color Purple' and more sophisticated than 'Jaws.' Unfortunately, though there is a special kind of craft visible here as always, the result is disappointingly ordinary and the plot is full of holes. Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' may not do justice to Dick's ideas, but at least it captures a private eye tone and has great visual style, and its action is full of panache. Visually, 'Blade Runner' and 'Brazil' are hard acts to follow, even for Spielberg.

By making us care about a robot boy so advanced he could love and seek love, 'A.I.' made moral issues of future technology gut wrenching: can you just throw a creation like this is the junk pile, or dump it by the road like a stray dog? It was the old dilemma of Frankenstein -- whether man can play God without disastrous results. In 'Minority Report' Spielberg seems to have grown cold to the very same moral issue of technology's eroding our humanity that exerted such a strong force in 'A.I.' In effect he has said in public that the recent curtailment of civil liberties in the US doesn't bother him because he feels it's necessary after September 11. I guess that kind of attitude explains why 'Minority Report' overlooks the real relevance of 'pre-cogs' and 'pre-crime' to the very up-to-date John Ashcroft world of racial profiling and wholesale roundups of guiltless 'suspects.' Maybe it's moral insensitivity to Philip K. Dick's story, and to the pessimism in Dick's view of the future, that has made 'Minority Report's' elaborated story end up being so poorly constructed. Spielberg and his writers lost track of where the premise was pointing.

Typically Spielberg says he prepared for this movie by watching a lot of movies including film noir, Hitchcock, and John Huston, and he has incorporated elements of Ridley Scott, Gilliam, Kubrick, Huston, Hitchcock and bits of many other movies. Ultimately they are at best held together only by the force of Tom Cruise's personality and the propulsive energy of the action and the special effects -- an energy that grows flaccid with the film's excessive length. There are so many borrowings that 'Minority Report' ends up seeming fussy and overcomplicated. I left feeling tired and empty. No real film noir would be half this long. It's all so uneconomical, such a monumental waste of time and talent! Good film noir doesn't require a big budget. Indeed, a big budget makes a film anything but noir.

Sure, there are good moments - Samantha Morton's acting in the challenging and rather thankless role of the pre-cog Agatha, Lois Smith's Kubrickesque cameo in the animated hothouse, the retinal ID spiders who invade Anderton's post-eye-op hideaway, and the whole grotty eye op episode, which blends bits of 'Brazil' with bits of 'Blade Runner' but adds a delicious new level of disgustingness. The Lexus factory episode is remarkable and sticks in the mind even as it seems reprehensible and preposterous, as do the personalized commercial ID's. Smaller roles like those played by Tim Blake Nelson and Jason Antoon are well cast. Inside this clunky behemoth there's clearly a wonderful movie violently gesturing to be let out. I'm bothered, though, that the writers have said they didn't really 'get' Philip K. Dick's story. If Dick's interesting enough as a sci-fi writer to base so many movies on, why take a story of his only to trash it - to weigh it down with pastiches and cameos from modern movie history?

June 24, 2002

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